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Inuit self-determination in action: We are repatriating our written language

Natan Obed is the national Inuit leader and president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami.

Despite virtually no government support for our language, approximately 63.3 per cent of the 60,000 Inuit in Canada are able to converse in Inuktut. Though language proficiency varies widely across our 53 communities in four jurisdictions that constitute our homeland Inuit Nunangat, our language has been incredibly resilient in spite of decades of passive and active language eradication efforts. Even in Inuit regions where relatively few Inuit still speak our language, it is a testament to our cultural and societal strength that these oppressed dialects survive at all.

Consider that there is nowhere in this country that Canadian Inuit can be educated in Inuktut as the primary language of instruction beyond grade four. Also consider that language promotion funding has historically been underfunded per capita up to 100 times the other official languages in Inuit Nunangat.

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For most of Canada's history, there has been a mistaken belief that it is only a matter of time before our culture, society, language and even our population will die out, be diluted to the point of irrelevance or be completely assimilated. Governments have not considered our language worth supporting, and have waited for us and our language to disappear. Yet Inuit have been resilient.

Canada has defined our place as Canadians through a dizzying matrix of historic and modern treaties, Supreme Court rulings and legislation. Canada has dreamed up a myriad of ways to control its "fiduciary" relationship with Inuit, but at the same time has imagined we as Inuit are not Canadian enough to be worthy of services, supports and infrastructure deemed necessary for all other Canadians to thrive. Yet we have been resilient and work to address these challenges, such as our work to revitalize, maintain and increase the use of Inuktut.

Since the 1970s, Inuit have been working to promote, protect, maintain and revitalize our language. Much of our efforts have been focused on promoting and supporting the continued use of Inuktut in Inuit Nunangat. We have had incredible language champions leading fierce debates about dialectal use. These debates within our society have been productive, leading to Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami's (ITK) current project to explore the feasibility of a unified Inuit language writing system.

Inuit linguists have told us the key to a new era in bilingual education is the ability to produce, publish and distribute common Inuit language materials. A unified Inuit language writing system with common grammar, spelling and terminology will facilitate the production of these materials and strengthen Inuktut. A unified writing system will also strengthen Inuit unity and culture in Canada, as it is part of self-determination. Crucially, even with the adoption of a unified writing system, communities will retain their own dialects, in both oral and written language, and be encouraged to use and teach existing local writing systems in home and in the community.

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the National Committee on Inuit Education established the Atausiq Inuktut Titirausiq (AIT) task group. The 14 members on the AIT task group include Inuit language specialists from each Inuit region. Their work is co-ordinated by ITK's National Inuit Language co-ordinator. The AIT task group has been mandated to research and identify the speech components of Inuktut and the current Inuktut orthographies in use, and recommend an Inuktut orthography (considering today's technology and trends) that is most effective and has the best chance of advancing Inuktut far into the future. This is Inuit self-determination in action. We are repatriating our written language.

As part of this work, ITK and Prince's Charities Canada partnered on a study tour to Wales in the United Kingdom in December, 2016. The goal of the study tour was to provide a deeper understanding of the cultural, social, institutional and other factors that supported the revitalization of the Welsh language. The tour objectives were to explore the Welsh example of language revitalization and learn from best practices surrounding education and language promotion. The key areas of investigation included the roll-out of Welsh in the education system; the experiences and stories of the Welsh people on language roll-out; and how a network of fluent speakers was developed who could then teach the language and write and publish material in the language.

The best solutions for Inuit are globally informed, Inuit-specific and evidence based. After learning firsthand how the Welsh language is regaining its place in Wales, the committee now has important knowledge that it can incorporate or adapt to better pursue the task of unifying our Inuit language writing system.

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We have a clear and exciting path to Inuktut strength, self-determination and realizing a Canada without such glaring holes in linguistic inequity. This is because of AIT's ongoing work, broad efforts to renew the Inuit-Crown relationship by the Prime Minister and Minister of Canadian Heritage Mélanie Joly announcing on June 15 the intent to collaborate on the co-development of Indigenous languages legislation.

Inuit in Canada will continue to work in all ways possible toward equitable political, legislative, program and policy foundations to learn, speak and use our language.

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